A Great War guest post: The Half-Shilling Curate – a story of love, valour & faith

To coincide with the commemorations held on Sunday, for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, I wrote a piece (HERE) about how we must, as we move on from the centenary events, continue to learn from the experiences of a century ago in order to prevent the trauma of any further conflict and recognise the sacrifices that are still made today. It struck a chord with many, so I thought it appropriate to make sure this blog continued to post, regularly, on the legacy of war and the many great men and women who have given so much over the years. 

Today I am thrilled to have a guest post on the blog. Sarah Reay is the granddaughter of a remarkable man, Herbert Cowl, the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. Here she tells us how her grandfather served his country in two wars, finding ways to support the men in his care whilst retaining his faith in the face of dreadful events.

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Rev. Herbert Cowl

When war broke out in 1914, the newly ordained Rev. Cowl volunteered to become an Army Chaplain. Most Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war.

It was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Herbert Cowl was a good candidate because he was young (in his late 20’s), physically fit (a great sportsman), he had the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), he could ride a horse and he spoke fluent French.

Herbert was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’. His descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrate the value of faith during war – the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.

When the 68th Brigade arrived in France, it was not long before the young Army Chaplain realised the pending reality of active service on the battlefront. In one of his early letters to his parents, a little innocent anxiety can be felt:

Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch-elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far-off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world, and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!

The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers.

Herbert’s service at the frontline was cut short when he was severely wounded. He later recalled in a letter:

A hundred yards away a shell threw a huge column of stone and soil into the air. I tried to answer the Doctor’s exclamation that they were getting nearer, when I was aware of an intolerable pressure on my right jaw. I would step into that open door-way, to be out of the way of falling stones. But why, having done so, was I plunged head foremost onto a stone floor thick with mud and dabbled with red? For a moment I lay there gazing through the glass-less window. The sky was a hazy blue; and white, watery clouds were heralding more rain – that meant more mud: and the cellar in which we slept would be green with mist when we turned in tonight!

Then the Doctor came and knelt at my side: and I remember the disgust with which I realised, as he asked me to lie still, that I was kicking furiously. Outside a voice called – “Bring a stretcher! The Chaplain’s hit” and another, – “Well, I reckon he’s done!”

He was operated on, almost straight away. It was a miracle he survived given the severity of his injuries. However, he survived and about ten days later he was on the hospital ship HMHS Anglia when she hit a German mine in the Channel. She was the first hospital ship to be lost in the war due to enemy action. Herbert recalled the events on the sinking ship:

Crushed thus, choking with salt water, and stunned by the new wound in the head, I was carried some 20 feet down the passage. It was then that as I like to think, the Angel of God became my deliverer. For I found myself suddenly and unaccountably standing on my feet in the midst of the water and the wreckage. A few hours before I could not walk: but now I walked along the passage: only to find myself in a bathroom from which there was no escape.

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The sinking of the Anglia by Rev. Cowl

He saved many lives that fateful day. His struggle to survive and the fact that he found the strength to save others was nothing short of a second miracle.

Due to his injuries, Herbert was never allowed to return to overseas duty. However, he did return to work as an Army Chaplain in the home camps and garrisons. He once described a scene in Portsmouth, in 1917 of the men returning from the battlefront:

One evening I entered that room for some week night meeting and there covering the floor and propped up against the walls, packed from end to end, side to side were wounded men just unloaded from the Western Front. They were the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

Twenty years later, Herbert a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton, North London found himself in the centre of another battle – the Second World War. His family were evacuated but he decided that he had to stay in London to offer help through the Blitz. One night in a shelter he wrote to his son (the author’s father):

Jerry is concentrating on railways and factories at present; and as we have a network of both, we come in for a lot of attention. Most nights you can tell what he is after, when he has dropped his first stick of bombs. (As it is, I’m writing badly partly because he is now circling round overhead looking for something: the shells are bursting continuously round him: and it isn’t a nice business sitting alone in this cockle-shell building while he tries to make up his mind where to lay his eggs. When they do drop, they sound as if they are coming right on top of you, though they may be half a mile away, or more. And as he is mostly using 500 lb ones, you are sure your last moment has come, until you find you are still alive! We shall get much more used to it in time; but it isn’t easy at first.)

THE HALF SHILLING CURATE - front book cover -hbcHerbert’s unique story has now been told in a book ‘The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918’. More information is available at www.halfshillingcurate.com and discounted signed copies of the book can also be purchased through the website.

Retired General Sir Peter de la Billière, who endorsed the book, quoted Field Marshal Haig adding; ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general – and this book proves it.’ The Foreword is written by BBC’s Hugh Pym, whose father was also an Army Chaplain during the Great War.

The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that had never been told before.

My sincere thanks to Sarah for allowing me to share her grandfather’s story on my blog. Do take a look at the website and find out more about this unique man.

Dunkirk – a war film on a different scale

Dunkirk_Film_posterI don’t often write film reviews on here – not least because I don’t actually go to the cinema very often, and when I do I am not sure that anyone would be interested in what I think of it. However, having written Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health and written articles and given talks on the aftermath of war, I was actually asked for my thoughts (always a boost to the old ego).

I have written at length about how troops were (or rather were not) supported to deal with the trauma they had experienced, and emphasised that even into the 21st century we are regularly failing those experiencing combat stress. I have read many personal accounts, been told stories of distant fathers and grandfathers who were simply unable to express their feelings and who perhaps turned to drink, or on their families.

The beach at DunkirkBut it wasn’t really until I sat in the cinema last night and watched Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk that I realised how impossible it is for anyone who hasn’t lived through war to appreciate what those young men (and women) went through, again, in WW2. Don’t misunderstand me – it is the very best war film I have ever seen and succeeds on almost every cinematic level – but even this immersive experience is always tempered by the knowledge (which the actors, when interviewed have been quick to highlight) that the men we see on the screen would always hear ‘cut’ and know they were safe. Those on the beaches of Dunkirk  – within 25 miles of home – were not so lucky.

Nolan’s use of time is wonderful, but you must pay attention, as you are watching the story unfold from different perspectives over interlocking periods and I know I got tripped up a couple of times. All the most obvious rules of cinema are broken here – we get no back story, we find out nothing about the characters, many of whom are anonymous, and the politics of the situation are totally ignored. We don’t see a German until right at the very end, and then for just a few seconds.

The whole cast brings an honesty (not all actions are ‘heroic’ in the usual sense) and intimacy to the film that at once makes it true on a wholly personal level, whilst at the same time portraying the universality of the horror. It is a terrific ensemble piece.

DUNKIRK-7-1200x800‘Star’ actors have little dialogue (in fact dialogue is at a minimum throughout) and it is genuinely the young men in the front line who are at the heart of the story, although Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are wonderfully understated in pivotal roles. Much of a to-do has been made of Harry Styles‘s acting debut and he does well, and his presence is not at the expense of the other young lead, Ffion Whitehead, who is remarkable. Jack Lowden, as one of the two pilots struggling to support the vulnerable shipping below them, was also good, although it is Tom Hardy as the other pilot, who seems to set the hearts fluttering. When you have had a crush on Ken Branagh for as long as I have (about 30 years now) Hardy will have to do better than be a total hero (no spoilers!)

The soundtrack is an integral part of the action, raising the tension and heartbeat. It brings in a touching and stirring hint of Elgar, particularly at the end and is never intrusive.

DUNKIRK-9-1200x800What I loved most about this film was the authentic nature of the action – no CGI (or little) was used to recreate the horror. Surviving Spitfires were used, as were some of the original small vessels sailing over the channel to evacuate the desperate troops (as Branagh sights the flotilla heading towards the beach a real lump comes to the throat). There is little blood (I am sure there was plenty in reality, but this is no gore fest like Saving Private Ryan, for example) but neither was there a sanitisation of the experience. I literally held my breath in some of the watery sequences…

Cillian Murphy is the actor portraying the ‘shell shocked’ soldier, his odd reactions after being rescued diagnosed by the Mark Rylance character, who had obviously had his own, earlier experiences of war, and who had already been affected by the tragedy of the second conflict. Murphy’s was not a sympathetic character, which I was a little sad about, but it was good to see the issue highlighted as one that hadn’t ended in the trenches of the Great War.

It is a wonderful film, that can only add to our knowledge and appreciation of the role played by so many in the defence of Britain. There was no sense in the film that victory was on the way – in fact, there is some despair and a real sense of failure. But Churchill’s words, used at the end, leave you with a sense that it was an event that brought the country together  – in failure then, there was new hope.

Go and see it as soon as you can, and at the cinema if at all possible. A small screen won’t diminish the brilliance of the film, but on the big screen, you can literally immerse yourself in it.

2015- A Christmas for thinking, thanking and loving

50928-40681Followers of my blog might know that this has been a strange old year for me. It has flown past in a whirl of various worries, some real, some imagined.  I have been promoting Shell Shocked Britain around the country and have been negotiating the next book with the publishers, whilst at the same time worrying about whether the writing bug has abandoned me to chew the heart out of some other poor soul.

But I love Christmas, and genuinely want to send everyone reading this best wishes for a fabulous festive season and a happy and healthy new year. It is not an easy time of year for many – especially those who are alone, or without enough of anything to make the end of the year (with all its consumer-driven hyped up happiness) seem a little more bearable.

Reports suggest we are largely a secular society now, but many of us still cling to cosy Anglicanism at Christmas time – the traditional  story of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds and the three wise men – and listen to carols when they nudge their way into our consciousness above the strains of Slade, Wizzard or Wham. Any faith or none, Christmas is always played out as a time of peace and goodwill to all; a moment for friends and family to get together and a short period in which to take stock and reflect on the year just passed, giving thanks for the good things, and express hope for better times to come. It is a time when each and every one of us (even those who say Bah! Humbug!) really wants to love and be loved.

As always I try to find a poem that expresses something of how I feel each Christmas. Having just spent a year promoting a book that highlights the lasting effects of war trauma on both soldiers and civilians, and when we are facing a refugee crisis and violence that few seem to know how to address, Thomas Hardy comes to mind.

A Christmas ghost-story by Thomas Hardy

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies–your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died

In this poem, the ghost of a bemused soldier, twisted in pain, asks us who decided that peace should once again be broken? He cannot understand how we can worship Christ who died to bring us peace, whilst allowing soldiers (this one anonymous man standing for all soldiers) to go into battle once more. All that was supposed to be achieved by the crucified Jesus has been ‘set aside’. He stares at the starry sky, on far away shores, emphasising the distance between himself and those he has left, who mourn  him. Why have those in government made laws to send him to his death?

This poem is most definitely anti-war. It was written at the time of the second Boer War at the end of the 19th century but is relevant to all wars in all time. We are still asking the same questions. This year we feel even further away from peace on earth. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated into the heart of Europe to the point where we cannot afford to ignore the thousands of refugees desperately seeking safety within our borders.  We are at war again, and once again troops of many nations are placing themselves in the way of danger. What is significant about Hardy’s poem is that this soldier is any soldier of any nationality. He is ‘your countryman’. Whoever you are.

Borders have been much in the news in 2015. As we end the year there are still thousands trying to cross them to safety and many employed to stop them doing just that. Here in the UK we have much to be thankful for, but as Hardy  asks, why do we put ‘AD ‘ after our years, when actions of governments are at odds with the message of the season? The message of peace.

The meaning of this ‘Christmas ghost-story’ still echoes through the decades…….

 

 

When procrastination pays off: Finding ‘Five Ways to Kill A Man’ by Edwin Brock

A quiet Sunday afternoon. Lots of work to do; the house is a mess. I have just looked down at my hands and see the results of a morning in the garden – broken and dirty fingernails and a splinter in my ring finger that requires a pin and some antiseptic. So many things should take priority over sitting browsing the Poetry Archive website, but which of them can’t wait? (Don’t answer that one – I appreciate my finger may turn septic rendering work and cleaning impossible but I will take a chance.)

So I have been looking up some poets I have never read before and came across Edwin Brock. Born in South London in 1927 he was a serving police officer, advertising copywriter and professional poet. The following poem is one I had to share. ‘Five Ways to Kill A Man’ is one of the most important anti-war poems of the 20th century and I was struck by how effective it is in highlighting the true horror of what man does to man. Simple and direct, it doesn’t need any complicated images to drive the point home.

Continue reading “When procrastination pays off: Finding ‘Five Ways to Kill A Man’ by Edwin Brock”

On the 11th hour – Wilfred Owen & a most moving poetic parable

The 11th of November, and Remembrance Sunday were days my father held above most others. Some of my earliest memories involve standing to attention by the black & white television in the back room as  Big Ben chimed, the guns went off to mark the end of the minutes silence and the Queen stepped forward to place her poppy wreath. I remember lots of sad, old faces; berets, medals and inevitably, wheelchairs.

I have very mixed feelings about war and the waste of young lives it inevitably involves. I admire our armed forces and still keep Remembrance Sunday as a mark of respect for my father and all it meant to him.

However, I feel that despite all the horrors of the wars of the 20th century politicians have learnt nothing. Young men and women are still sent into war zones about which we know very little for causes we hardly understand. My daughter’s 17 year old friends are talking about the army as an alternative to university and unemployment, but seem to assume combat is an extension of a Playstation or X Box game. It is hard to listen to.

So today, I reserve a place on my blog for a poem that has always been one which has moved me more than any other as a ‘commandment’ to us to think long and hard before once more sending our troops into situations where they die with honour; heroic in defence of their comrades and their units. But for a wider good? Who is entitled to make that decision?

Inspired by a parable in the Book of Genesis , in this poem, Wilfred Owen acknowledges God’s mercy in a way he rarely does in his work; but he leaves man to take the final decision. And it is the wrong one.

The Parable of the Old Man & the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen – written 1918

God rest their souls.